AUGUSTA — A bill meant to help reduce the cost of electricity for Maine businesses received a mixed review Thursday before the Legislature’s Energy Committee.

The legislation, LD 1398, sponsored by Sen. Garrett Mason, R-Lisbon, would change the way funds from the state’s Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative Trust Fund are distributed to electricity ratepayers starting in 2017.

Currently, about 15 percent of the trust fund, estimated to grow in value to $20 million by 2017, is returned as rebates to business ratepayers. Mason’s bill would increase the rebate amount to 55 percent.

The fund is financed by a carbon auction system that requires energy producers in nine Northeastern states to pay for the fossil fuels they burn to create electricity. It was established in an attempt to reduce the region’s consumption of fossil fuels and, in turn, reduce the output of climate-warming greenhouse gases.  

In Maine, money from the trust has largely been used to fund energy-efficiency programs for businesses and homeowners through Efficiency Maine, which offers grants, loans and rebates for energy-efficiency investments.

“I constantly hear that our electricity prices — the 12th highest in the country — make it difficult to continue to operate in our state, hire Mainers and grow our economy,” Mason said. “From the paper industry to mom and pop stores, too much is being spent to keep the lights on and the businesses operational. Lawmakers must step up and take action to provide relief. This bill is one way to do so.”

But opponents of the measure, largely environmental coalitions, including the Natural Resources Council of Maine and those representing businesses that weatherize homes or install energy-efficiency upgrades for businesses, said the funding is more effective when used to encourage energy efficiency.

Bob Howe, a lobbyist for the Maine Association of Building Efficiency Professionals, said the group was opposed to the legislation because Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative funds are more valuable when they are used for efficiency upgrades.

Howe said that while Mason’s bill targets energy rates, the real issue is energy costs and by reducing consumption through efficiency, energy costs go down.  Others testified that the intent of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative in the first place was to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and by returning money directly to businesses, there was no guarantee those businesses would use the money to increase efficiency or reduce consumption.

Dylan Voorhees, the clean energy project director for the Natural Resources Council of Maine, said the first $12 million of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative Trust Fund that was granted to industry for efficiency projects yielded $140 million in energy savings for those businesses while also leveraging private investment.

Voorhees said giving the estimated $20 million back to businesses meant only that those businesses would spend $20 million less on electricity.

“If you send it through Efficiency Maine, they will spend $100 to $130 million less on energy because energy-efficiency improvements over time are going to save $5 or $6 for every dollar that’s invested,” Voorhees said.

The committee will continue to work on the bill in the weeks ahead before deciding whether to recommend it to the full Legislature for consideration.

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